Death Takes a Holiday
Julien Allen on Hotel Rwanda and The Killing Fields

The repackaging of real-life atrocities as movie entertainment is historically lucrative, but poses a number of challenges. Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields and its 2004 successor, Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda, belong to a subgenre (which for the sake of gentle controversy one might call “atrocity porn”) inhabited by the likes of Cry Freedom, Salvador, and Mississippi Burning and lorded over by the granddaddy of them all: Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (unkindly labeled by David Mamet as “Mandingo for Jews”). Such films, inevitably garlanded at awards time, rely on their audiences’ desire to be confronted and emboldened by burning injustice and to have the veil lifted to reveal some (but not all) of the horrors of real-life events which are either too geographically or historically distant to have captured the attention back when they were actually “real life,” or for which TV news provided insufficient dramatization.

The Killing Fields and Hotel Rwanda are both essentially stories of admirable men: the New York Times reporter Sidney Shanberg and Cambodian journalist and interpreter Dith Pran (The Killing Fields) and hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (Hotel Rwanda). Based on eyewitness accounts of the Khmer Rouge revolution in Cambodia in 1975, The Killing Fields is split right down the middle: part one is Schamberg’s story of the fall of Phnom Penh, featuring Pran’s attempt at sanctuary at the US Embassy; part two is Pran’s story of his incarceration in (and escape from) a Khmer Rouge forced labor camp, featuring Shanberg back in the U.S. hopelessly trying to locate Pran’s whereabouts. Hotel Rwanda has a simpler structure, Paul Rusesabagina uses his workplace, the luxury Hotel Milles Collines in Kigali, to help shelter over one thousand ethnic Tutsis from being massacred in Hutu reprisals during the 1994 Rwandan conflict. Both films sprang from a desire to tell a very personal, specific and narrow story in order to shed light upon (and commercially exploit) genocide. There is a clearly defined contractual and moral relationship in both cases between the human story and the genocide itself: the former will help expose the world to the latter, whilst the latter will provide the dramatic circumstances for the former to have commercial appeal. As such, genocide is not really the subject of either film, but the sanguinary backdrop to both. The ruthless pragmatism required in making such subject matter palatable to viewers, by rescuing from each unimaginable tragedy a heart-warming and uplifting slice of heroism, brings with it two fundamental challenges: 1) what (and how much) of the genocide to show, and 2) what political stance (if any) the film should take. In the twenty years between the releases of The Killing Fields and Hotel Rwanda, remarkably little progress appears to have been made on either front. And we appear to have gone backwards in terms of aesthetics.

One of the things that marks The Killing Fields (and immediately gives it the feel of a typical indie film) is its stubborn absence of exposition, particularly in its first part. Filmed (as with Hotel Rwanda) almost a decade after the events portrayed, it credits the audience with either knowing the background story, or being able to work it out simply by watching the drama unfold. It begins with a false start (Pran, who is not properly introduced, fails to meet Shanberg at Phnom Penh airport, for a reason never properly given), and continues in a satisfyingly disjointed manner into progressive narrative chaos, punctuated by snatches of radio reports and short bursts of conversation which hint at the gathering storm without anything so crass as someone making a wiki-speech to help us all out. Shanberg (played by Sam Waterston) is irritable and unpleasant, and Pran (played by real-life survivor and eventual Oscar winner Haing S. Ngor) appears at first to be his rather downtrodden dogsbody. The lack of a coherent setup cleverly underscores the confusion Shanberg has himself walked into. The early scene of the evacuation of Pran’s family by helicopter (Pran himself tragically opts to stay, out of journalistic loyalty) is played out with actors screaming almost inaudibly against the noise of the rotors, eyes squinting through the swirling sand—it has a rawness and a fragmentation which slyly implies reportage whilst inching the story forward. John Malkovich’s frenetic punk photographer bounces in and out of this grimy shambles to complement the overall effect.

By contrast, the opening of Hotel Rwanda appears to have all the African authenticity of Coming to America: an immaculate-looking Don Cheadle, finally carrying a film on his own, drives through a clean, colourfully thriving Kigali under a bouncy generic quasi-African soundtrack—he’s cheekily wheeler-dealing to obtain supplies for the four-star Hotel Mille Collines, where the rich Belgian holidaymakers and corrupt local police need not concern themselves too much with the fact that their country is a complete powder keg. Unconvincing radio exposition fills out all the background information, assisted by speeches from Nick Nolte as an impotent blue cap general and Joaquin Phoenix as a mini-Shanberg, trying to get a story. The comparison between Phoenix’s paper-thin character in Hotel Rwanda and Malkovich’s mysterious and unpredictable photographer in The Killing Fields (both very much supporting cast) is damning on every level to the former film. Meanwhile, Paul sees a crate of machetes break open on the floor of his supplier’s warehouse, cued by portentous strings; later storm clouds literally gather over the Hotel as Hutu reprisals are announced over the radio. It’s depressing just how early on the viewer is trapped in a terribly familiar comfort zone by these TV movie tropes—comfort is the last sensation one should associate with a film about Rwanda.

At the heart of Hotel Rwanda’s cowardice is the Hotel Milles Collines. This “oasis” serves not only as the dramatic impulse for the character of Paul (his obsession with servitude, keeping up appearances and loyalty to a duff cause makes the Hotel’s reputation his primary preoccupation, reminding one of how Oskar Schindler’s main motivation was to make money) but also as a metaphor for the sanctuary Hotel Rwanda takes from confronting the scale and truth of the Rwandan genocide. The Killing Fields temporarily falls into the same trap with its extended spell in the U.S. Embassy as the Khmer Rouge storm Phnom Penh—we’re loosely aware of something going on outside, whilst mainly witnessing white people complaining—but overall displays far greater intellectual probity by its slow build towards the dramatization of Pran’s horrific experiences in its second half.

The first confrontation with violence (when Pran negotiates Shanberg and his colleagues’ freedom from a Khmer Rouge kill squad) has a sophistication Hotel Rwanda would envy if it were even trying to match it. Shanberg is originally defiant as other Cambodians are executed all around him, but lets his guard drop as his survival instincts (crucial to the story, given how Shanberg was later criticized for leaving Pran to his fate) suddenly take over from his journalistic ones and his arrogant demeanor drops for the first time—Waterston’s dog eyes are perfect for this transformation. Meanwhile, over a series of fades, Pran (whose unfussy heroism is established in the same scene) is cajoling, persuading and bribing the killers to relent. What this sequence delivers (apart from genuine suspense, tempered only by the sinking realization that Julian Sands’s character is actually going to survive) is a window on the casual, almost robotic nature of the Khmer Rouge violence. Thus, as The Killing Fields mutates into Pran’s story, taking us away from the relative sanctuary of Shanberg’s westerner’s eye view, into the full-blown horror of the forced labor camp, the constant threat of violence hangs like a shroud over the action.

While both films share an almost identical “money shot,” the one in The Killing Fields demonstrates something unerringly logical (Pran’s discovery of the titular paddy fields full of skeletons crystallises the terror of part one and the protracted torture of part two), while Rusesabagina’s final alighting on piles of Tutsi bodies clouded by a fog (which mysteriously parts to reveal the dead) in Hotel Rwanda represents little more than a sop to the perceived need to show some artistic honesty, dressed up as Paul’s own innocence spoiled. As it happens, Rusesabagina himself was in favor of shielding the film’s audience from scenes of genocide, stating that people would not want to go to the cinema to watch what really happened. But can he really have meant that the film retreat so far to the margins, and that the blood be watered down to such trace levels? Claude Lanzmann, whose Shoah is perhaps the strongest cinematic argument for de-visualizing genocide, declared that Spielberg had “no right” to show the gas chambers in Schindler’s List—arguing that to create a false picture (however well intentioned or reproduced) of the Holocaust is to deface its memory. But the objections to Hotel Rwanda’s approach are not for its lack of visual representation, but its aggressive avoidance of the primary subject in all its facets: it feels like a dinner party in a war zone where all the guests are strenuously prolonging the small talk—surely as grave an insult to history as a botched attempt to represent it would have been.

Leaving aside the unspoken fact that French colonial arrogance carries much of the blame for both Cambodia and Rwanda from the very outset, while Hotel Rwanda refuses any political stance at all, The Killing Fields falls down on this front also because it gets its politics so hopelessly wrong, sticking too rigidly to Shanberg’s agenda. According to Shanberg (in a position of influence as a respected Far East correspondent), Cambodia needed to be freed from American influence to survive, and while Shanberg’s character admits this colossal mistake in the film (withdrawal of American aid to the Lon Nol government having left it defenseless to the coup) he suddenly changes tack and blames American bombing for the rise of the Khmer Rouge—thus ignoring the inexorability of Pol Pot's decade-long progression to power. This somewhat hypocritical stance, especially with ten years’ hindsight, represents, apart from the happy ending, the weakest element of The Killing Fields. Pran’s own more apolitical concern for the fate of his country above his own carries greater weight and reduces Shanberg’s impact. So while The Killing Fields does succeed in confronting (principally through its treatment of Pran’s front line experiences) the scale of the horror, it never really succeeds in rising above the level of the personal: the story of two men, separated and happily reunited, just like Paul Rusesabagina who is reunited with his Tutsi wife and family for the film’s freeze framed happy ending. Slicker and more predictable in every way, despite honest performances from its leads the latter film delivers none of the invention or intelligence one is supposed to associate with independent filmmaking, none of the rough edges or risky calls. The Killing Fields still has the imagination to throw John Lennon’s Maoist anthem “Imagine” over its final freeze frame—which is either extremely provocative or extremely stupid (you decide) but certainly unexpected.

Before concluding, it’s worth noting that The Killing Fields was one of a number of “yuppie films” developed by British outfit Goldcrest in the 1980s and financed and distributed by Warner Bros. (stable mates: Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, The Mission). The money men at Goldcrest decided to make The Killing Fields—not Shanberg, who was looking at book rights, nor Puttnam or Joffé, who were hired to deliver it—and Goldcrest sold the idea to Warners, the studio having shown its keenness with Gandhi and Chariots of Fire to obtain recognition for “quality” as well as turnover. Hotel Rwanda was spawned more traditionally from the creative end—the writer Keir Pearson heard about the story and took it to In the Name of the Father writer Terry George, who then pitched it to Lions Gate Films (with himself unwisely attached as director).

Rewatching both, one is struck not only by the similarity between their subject matter and central dramatic approach (apparently making them an almost perfect pair of lab rats for this particular symposium) but also by the confusing concept of “indie” cinema, the frequent gulf between assumption (about artistic and political freedom) and reality (how independent cinema is, by necessity, so much more anchored to the bottom line than studio product, because independent producers cannot afford a flop like studios can). Both films have a claim to “indie” status, via their difficult subject matter, their relatively low budgets, and lack of major stars, but even ignoring the vagaries of funding, the distinction between the “studio product” of The Killing Fields and the “indie” Hotel Rwanda is largely illusory. The Killing Fields not only feels more independent than Hotel Rwanda—it actually is. If true independence is anything, it is surely artistic freedom allied to studio largesse, from which The Killing Fields benefited—which is why RKO’s Citizen Kane is surely the most independent film ever produced.

All told, it is difficult to imagine a successor to The Killing Fields or Hotel Rwanda being made in another twenty years time. With the increase in popularity of feature documentaries on smaller subjects (Taxi to the Dark Side, Inside Job, Restrepo) in the years since Hotel Rwanda’s release in 2004, films seem to have the capacity to sate those same audience appetites for injustice and indignation, while more bravely attempting to overcome some of the challenges Hotel Rwanda chooses to avoid. Audiences desensitized (or liberated, depending on your point of view) by explicit big and small screen violence are less queasy about confronting humanity's capacity for barbarism and have much less of a need for world events to be narrativized and made palatable, suggesting that the subgenre’s modus operandi may soon be changing.